Evolutionary Foundations for a Theory of Moral Progress?

Abstract

Buchanan and Powell develop a concept of moral progress, and build a middle-range theory of how moral progress comes about. They argue on the basis of their view of the evolutionary origins of normative thought that further moral progress towards more inclusive moral and political systems is possible. In doing so they rebut a conservative reading of the evolution of normative thought: a reading that regards the hope for inclusive moral systems as utopian. Buchanan and Powell argue that this ‘evoconservative’ argument overlooks overwhelming evidence of the adaptive plasticity of normative thought. I agree with their rejection of that evoconservative position, but give an alternative account of the evolutionary foundations of normative cognition and its plasticity. But I also argue that there is a gap in their defence of their view of moral progress: it begs the question against exclusive, relational conceptions of the naturalistic foundations of normative obligations and rights. Their account is less fully naturalistic than they seem to suppose, for it lacks a developed account of the natural facts which make normative claims true, and it is not clear that there is an account to be given that would vindicate their inclusive liberal intuitions about the norms we should have.

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The Journal is devoted to the fundamental issues of empirical and normative social theory, and is directed at social scientists and social philosophers who combine commitment to political and moral enlightenment with argumentative rigour and conceptual clarity. Published articles develop social theorizing in connection with analytical philosophy and philosophy of science.

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